Saturday, 27 April 2013

April 2013 - The Worst Month So Far Of The Tories' Assault On Our Human Rights?

In Aycliffe we have been busy this month fighting a local election campaign over who gets the right to go to County Hall to implement the Tories’ draconian cuts to local government spending.  So you might have missed what the government has been smuggling in under the smokescreen of the election and the Thatcher funeral.

In fact, April was a disastrous month for ordinary British people:

On 24 April, the Lords finally validated ‘Section 75’ (which requires the NHS to put its services out to tender – the key piece of legislation in the government’s intention to ‘marketise’ the NHS).  Guardian journalist Sonia Poulton tweeted that 206 MPs and Lords had vested interests which meant that they would benefit personally, and stated: ‘these people are thieves’.

On 23 April (in a courtroom without disabled access … and therefore unwitnessed by any disabled person) the courts turned down an appeal against the government’s decision to abolish the Independent Living Fund – a £320m fund which helps 20,000 people with severe disabilities to live as independently as possible.

That same day, after losing in the British Court of Appeal yet another attempt to deport Abu Qatada, the Tories again floated the idea of leaving the European Court of Human Rights and scrapping the Human Rights Act.  Talk like this should alarm British workers, whose employment rights are based substantially on European legislation.

On 22 April, at 11:30pm in an almost-deserted chamber, the Lords agreed to amend the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill so that the burden of proving what caused an accident will now fall on the injured worker, or the family of someone killed, rather than the employer – a rule-change that overturns century-old legislation and will affect 70,000 cases a year.  This month, in fact, saw the abolition of a raft of safety regulations, including the scrapping of the head protection regulations and the closure of the tower crane register – vital regulations which improved safety on construction sites.

That same day, Childcare minister Elizabeth Truss (who herself employs a nanny) criticised nurseries for allowing toddlers to ‘run around with no sense of purpose’ and announced her intention to insist that nursery staff need higher qualifications – a requirement which would make nursery care too expensive for ordinary people and has been interpreted as a move to force mothers on part-time work out of the workplace altogether.

On 19 April, the Guardian reported a proposal by Eric Pickles’s Department for Communities to control and censor the content of newsletters issued by local councils, a proposal which Local Government Association leader Sir Merrick Cockell labelled ‘unnecessary and disproportionate’.

The same day, a left-wing blogger revealed that a Jobseeker personality test required by the DWP (with sanctions if you refused) was a ‘behavioural control’ fake designed by a US counter-terrorism and psychology team – however you answer the 48 questions, the test returns the same results, even if you click through without answering at all.  (And if you try to access the blog in question from facebook you will find that – along with a number of other left-wing blogs – it is either blocked, or flagged as spam.)

On 17 April, quietly under cover of the Thatcher funeral, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling issued plans to reform the legal aid system, including fixed fees for handling cases and packaging legal aid into 400 contracts for which big firms like G4S will be encouraged to bid; it is the 'marketisation' of legal aid, and lawyers warned that fixed fees will incentivise lawyers to recommend guilty pleas.

On 15 April, on a disastrous day for human rights in Britain, the Commons voted: 

1. to SCRAP Section_3 of the Equality and Human Rights Commission's duties, which gives it a general obligation to 'eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation'.
2. to REMOVE from the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill a provision outlawing caste discrimination (which is therefore now not illegal in Britain).

On the same day, Hansard reported a number of complaints by Parliament’s Human Rights Joint Committee that the government’s practice of fast-tracking bills was not giving it time to scrutinise properly legislation which had human rights implications.

That same day, MPs voted to preserve the scheme that will allow people to set up businesses without giving their employees full rights … provided they give them shares in the business instead (the Lords later overturned this proposal, so we will ‘watch that space’ on this one).

That same day also, facing criticism from Tory MPs for his plans to allow house extensions of huge size, Eric Pickles asked them to overturn a Lord’s amendment on the grounds that he intended to introduce a concession, although he refused to tell MPs what it was!  On this basis, 286 Tory MPs voted against the Lord’s amendment … for a concession which they did not even know what it was! (In the end, it turned out to be that you have to ask your neighbour first.)

On 15 April also, a benefit cap of £500 a week was introduced.  This is something that many of the public agree with in principle … without appreciating that, when benefits reach this level, most of the benefit is going, not to the family, but to their landlord.

On 8 April, benefit increases were capped at 1% for three years.  Many people – whose wages too are capped or frozen – also agreed with this in principle … without thinking that 1% of £70 a week is just 70p.

On 6 April, by contrast, at an estimated cost of £3bn., the government introduced a tax cut for anybody earning more than £150,000 a year; this will benefit the UK's 13,000 income millionaires by an average of £100,769 a year.

At the same time, the Tories also introduced for all Britain’s businesses ‘Real Time Information’ reporting on wage-payments, reducing PAYE to chaos, threatening small firms with insolvency, and laying the myth that this government wants to cut red tape and help small businesses.

Finally, on 1 April, the government introduced the ‘bedroom tax’; its cruellest aspect being that – even if you agree with it and try to downsize – there are no smaller houses to go to.

On the same day, the government introduced measures which effectively cut Council Tax Welfare Benefit by 10%. Durham County Council managed to delay by a year the inevitable result of this – that people on CTWB will have to pay a proportion of their council tax.  (The measures also reduced the Town Council’s budget by approximately £60,000.)

On the same day also, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) came into force; it cuts the legal aid budget by £350m by removing entire areas of law from the scope of legal aid (including most areas of social welfare law) - so that fewer people now have access to free legal representation than at any time since legal aid was introduced.

If you have been interested to know about these developments, you can keep yourself up to date by joining the Newton Aycliffe Labour Group of Branches facebook page – at – which usually records such things as they happen.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Paris Brown: An Unnecessary Character Assassination Perpetrated By Stupid People

What place youth in our modern democracy?
If we are going to give responsibility to 17-year-olds, we must be prepared to forgive them their goofs.

Offensive tweets or offensive system?
A teenager called Paris Brown has got herself into the news today.  The Kent 17-year-old was due to become Britain's first youth crime commissioner, but has withdrawn from the role after the press got hold of her tweets.

I won’t bother you with what she said – suffice it to say that they were the kind of childish, loutish, show-off comments that anybody who has lived or worked with teenagers knows they can (and often do) make.

She was 14 when the most offensive remarks occurred, and she is 17 now.  And I think it is a disgrace that she should have been hounded into resigning … that no one stepped forward and protected her.

Paris Brown’s demise says worse things about our political system than it ever says about Paris Brown.

Getting ‘Real’ About Youth
I do not know Paris Brown, but in principle I deny that is a relevant issue.
What I have to say goes to the nub of how we seek to involve young people in general.

What is the point of saying that we want to involve young people in the democratic process if, when they turn up and start behaving like young people, we immediately go all horrified and get rid of them?  The young people with whom we ever interact are by default the more intelligent, more responsible and more coherent youths.   If they were not, they would not ever have got to the point where they were involved in what – let’s face it – is an old people’s system.

Our structures of meetings and reports and resolutions are so alien to the lives and proclivities of normal youths that any young person who gets involved is by definition exceptional (in every sense of the word).

How often do we EVER meet a ‘normal’ youth in a political meeting?  The young people whom we ever meet on a deputation or a youth council are not only far, far removed from the gangs you find hanging round on every estate – they are far, far removed from the gaggles of youngsters who gather for activities we oldies would regard as ‘wholesome’.  It takes something different in a youngster to give up the ipod and the party and go to sit for two hours to talk to a bunch of 60-year-olds about political matters.   But – unless they have someone fierce to defend them – we often do not even then accept them, but subject them to a process of censure and setbacks and criticism which weeds out even these exceptional youngsters.

The result, unless one is very careful, is that the young people involved in politics are not young at all, but are old people in a young body.  As always, I refuse to allow you to compartmentalise what I am saying into a general attack on young politicians – I am sure many of them are lovely – but we have all met the ‘youth politician’ who, let’s face it, is just odd … a William_Haguesque monster.

And then we listen to what is even then trite, inexperienced drivel, and clap like lunatics, and put responsibilities upon their shoulders far beyond their years, and set them up to fail.

But, hey, we believe in youth, don’t we?

‘The kiddies are our future,’ as I am often told.  The trick is to make this more than meaningless twaddle ... to make it happen.

Involving Youth
I have always opposed giving 16-year-olds the vote.  Having worked 40 years as a secondary teacher, I think they are too young to appreciate what they are doing.

What I believe we need to do is to devise AGE-APPROPRIATE ways of drafting young people into the democratic process.

Amongst other things, that involves setting up systems where they can safely fail.  Failure is the greatest teacher of all, and our aspirant young people need to be able to make their mistakes, learn the lessons, pick themselves up, and have another go.

Great Aycliffe Town Council has a Youth Council.   It gives them a budget, and I try to defend their right to spend it as they choose.   In fact, they analyse each decision thoroughly, dole the money out in ounces, and rarely spend up to budget – they are models of financial caution, and I commend them.  But if they were to mess up and waste it, that is a learning experience; the Council does not give them the money to spend it how the councillors want it spent – it gives them it so that they might learn how to disburse the public purse.

This year we have two 18-year-olds standing for Labour for election as Town Councillors in Aycliffe.  Do we need them on the Council? Yes we do, and how!  And when they are elected, I hope the Council will listen to them, take what they say into account, and try to provide an environment in which they can grow in experience and succeed.

Paris Brown
The real failure in the tale of Paris Brown is Kent PCC Ann Barnes, who said she would stand by her and then didn’t.  The other problem, of course, is the press, who seem unable to distinguish between a real scandal, and a teenager who has made a foolish error of judgement.  Everybody should have been told to take a running jump, and Paris Brown should have been allowed to start her job.

Paris Brown made a mistake.  She messed up.  You do that when you are 17.
But if we REALLY want to engage with youth, we better start taking that into account.

(Legally-required attribution: published and promoted by John D Clare on behalf of John D Clare.)

Friday, 5 April 2013

Obituary: RIP NHS – 1st April 2013, aged 64

This was written for our local election campaign, but it will probably apply just as much to your area.

The privatisation of the NHS
The demise of the National Health Service this week will have taken many by surprise, since it was presented by the government merely as a re-organisation – the handing over of control to the GPs’ Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

Hidden in the small print, however, and largely unreported by the media, ‘Section 75’ of the new rules includes a requirement to put out NHS services to competitive tender. Thus, when the new legislation came fully into force on 1st April, the NHS ceased to be a service provided by the state, and started instead the process of becoming a service paid for by the state, but provided by such private providers as have won the various contracts. This is not denationalisation’ (as with BT, gas etc. in the 1980s) but ‘marketisation’ – the procurement of government contracts by private companies.

Already, £250million-worth of contracts have been given to private companies; it is estimated that, in the coming year, another £750million of contracts will be similarly outsourced. It has been a small scandal that some GPs have been caught awarding contracts to companies in which they have a financial interest. And it is not an accident that, just as the inexperienced GPs’ CCGs are taking over commissioning, multinational corporations (with their slick negotiation lawyers) have been allowed to bid for contracts; the danger is that they will make over-advantageous deals (as with some of the PFI deals, which are bankrupting some hospitals).

From the user’s point of view, our health services may seem little changed. We are certainly not suddenly going to have to start paying for treatment, and the full range of provision will remain. The new providers all operate under the NHS logo, so we won’t know whether it is a private company or the old NHS supplying our medical care. But, behind the scenes, the provider of our medical services will likely have changed from the state (doing it for civic duty), to a business corporation (manipulating it for profit; they are going to make a fortune out of our ill-health in the coming years).

There is little that we, as ordinary people, can do about this. The Labour Party has promised to repeal the legislation but, by 2015, many of the profitable bits of the NHS will already have been sold off and lost.

There are just two positives.
Firstly, there is an organisation being set up in County Durham called ‘Healthwatch Durham’, which will promote the needs and the views of users; it is based in Aycliffe Business Park and it is this organisation, after the election, with which I would wish the Town Council to get involved. Great Aycliffe Town Council has been ahead of the game on this; it already has a representative on the local Health and Wellbeing Partnership Network

Secondly, Durham County Council has set up a ‘Health and Wellbeing Board’ which will work with the local CCG on the commissioning process. In our new ‘marketised’ NHS, well-written contracts will be our first line of defence against cut-price care, and it is vital that the ‘Health and Wellbeing Board’ is an effective body.

This is just one more reason that the elections this May are of vital importance to us as a community. So when your candidates knock your door, ask them how they think the Council should engage with the NHS changes.

(Legally-required attribution: published and promoted by John D Clare on behalf of John D Clare.)